Aboard the spy ship U.S.S. Argosy in the war-tossed waters off the coast of Vietnam, three young American sailors form an unlikely bond. Each has fled an America they were raised to love but somehow no longer understand. When forced to choose whether to face combat or stay and fight the war in the streets, they sign up for a war that reflects the conflict that raged inside each of them. The one thing of which they were certain was that the only people in the world they could depend on were each other. As their friendship deepens in the bars and brothels from Hong Kong to Subic Bay, Ernie Brigham and his companions slowly become aware of a dark secret aboard the U.S.S. Argosy. Upon their return to the America they left behind, they are changed at best, lost and damaged at worst, but ultimately sobered by a war that never should have been fought. In the tradition of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, and Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, The Candlestickmaker recalls a Vietnam that seared disenchantment into a post World War II generation who learned to question authority at all levels. A coming-of-age story bookended by revelations that shatter readers’ illusions about patriotism, government, and the nature of modern warfare, The Candlestickmaker takes readers on a voyage that will guarantee they never read the Mother Goose nursery rhyme to their children in quite the same way again.
Most recently author of FIVE EASY DECADES: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Time (John Wiley & Sons), Dennis McDougal has chronicled Hollywood, crime and the media for over 30 years. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and CNN producer during the O.J. Simpson trial, McDougal returned to TV in 2009 as a producer for “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times”, the PBS “American Experience” documentary based on McDougal’s 2001 bestselling biography PRIVILEGED SON (DaCapo Press). A chronicle of the legendary Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, “Inventing L.A.” was honored with a George Foster Peabody Award while Fordham University gave Privileged Son its annual Ann M. Sperber Award for the nation’s best media biography.
McDougal is also the author of:
* Los Angeles Times best-seller THE LAST MOGUL: Lew Wasserman, MCA and the Hidden History of Hollywood (Crown). The “you scratch my back, I’ll stab yours” Hollywood backstage saga that movie fans may hear about but rarely see. As the elusive, tyrannical head of Universal Studios, Wasserman was the mobbed-up Godfather of show business for more than half a century.
* Edgar-nominated IN THE BEST OF FAMILIES (Warner Books) which recounts the descent into murderous madness of the entire family of Ronald Reagan’s personal attorney Roy Miller, whose son raped and murdered his own mother.
* ANGEL OF DARKNESS (Warner Books) — the cult classic about Southern California serial murderer Randy Kraft, a mild-mannered computer whiz by day and lust killer at night, who holds the dubious distinction of being one of the most prolific murderers (approximately 67 victims) in modern U.S. history;
* MOTHER’S DAY (Ballantine) — the perennial best-selling saga of a Sacramento mother of six who enticed two of her sons into a monstrous plot to torture and murder her own daughters.
The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg described McDougal as a master of pulp non-fiction while the New York Times called him “L.A.’s No. 1 muckraker.” He has taught journalism and creative writing at UCLA and California State Universities at Fullerton and Long Beach, is the recipient of Stanford University’s John S. Knight Professional Journalism Fellowship, and has been honored with more than 50 professional awards over the course of his career.
I talk to Dennis on the phone Sunday morning.
He moved to Memphis five years ago. “I miss old friends,” he says. “I miss camaraderie.”
“I don’t miss the noise pollution and the light pollution, none of which anyone would be aware of if they lived there for a long period of time because it deadens the senses. The only way you can get out of it in Southern California is to travel deep into the Mojave desert. Only then do you realize how much you have been sensorily deprived. Los Angeles is a megaopolis. I don’t miss that.”
Luke: “Do you still read the Los Angeles Times?”
Dennis: “I look at it online once or twice a week and see if there is anything worth reading beyond Steve Lopez’s column. There rarely is.”
“I don’t regret [the decline of the big publishers]. The traditional media has all too often used its bully pulpit to dictate rather than to communicate. I’m glad to see the dictatorial aspect of the media passing away.
“There was a time when 10-20 daily newspapers essentially dictated the news agenda on a daily basis. It’s now down to two or three and they’re on life support. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think the same thing is true of the motion picture studio system. Before the advent of the independent film association, they called the shots on what was seen on screens around the world. Pop music was controlled by a half dozen pop music entities. The same thing is happening to publishing.
“We’re seeing a democratization forced on these economic behemoths by the digital world. I’m not bothered by that.”
Luke: “Are we confronting the end of long-form journalism?”
Dennis: “No, no. Not at all. I think there’s a rebirth in the offing. Heck, here we are talking on what will end up on a blog and arguably our little Q&A here is long-form journalism. I assume that you have more than one or two readers. That is proof in itself that long-form journalism is not dead.”
Luke: “How did you come to write The Candlestickmaker?”
Dennis: “It’s a labor of love. It’s based in part on my own experiences during the Vietnam war. It’s fiction. Although many of the characters are based on real people, the concept that the government may have been dosing its soldiers and sailors with psychadelics and using them as guinea pigs for drugs is based on some fact, I’ve taken it a step further.
“It’s a story that hasn’t been told. There have been lots of Vietnam novels but they are all about combat and rains and being swaggering and tough and fighting the good fight in the wilds of the Laotian frontier. There’s a whole part of that war that has been ignored. There were thousands and thousands of sailors who participated and you read nothing about them.”
“Vietnam was our first almost completely medicated foreign conflict. It didn’t end with the armistice between the U.S. and Vietnam in 1975. Drugs and warfare [now] go hand-in-hand. I don’t think anyone goes out there to the frontiers of Afghanistan or Iraq or even Serbia or Bosnia without being loaded because it is just too awful to deal with otherwise. The military would like to tell you that that is not true. I’m here to tell you that that is BS.”
“I was on active duty with the Naval Reserves for around two years (1967-1969). The Candlestickmaker is [75%] based on those experiences.
“I served on a spy ship (the U.S.S. Annapolis) in the South China Sea. A lot of things that went on there were bizarre and I record some of them in the book. The captain of our ship had a predilection for taking the recruiting slogan — join the Navy and see the world — seriously. We’d go out and do our 30-60 days tossing messages back and forth from the mainland to Hawaii and then we’d go on R&R. We did that a lot. He took us all over the Far East.”
According to Wikipedia: “After operations out of Norfolk for the first half of 1965, Annapolis was assigned Long Beach, California as home port on 28 June 1965. In September, she was sent to Vietnam to assist communications between naval units fighting Communist aggression. In 1966, the first ship-to-shore satellite radio message ever transmitted and received was between the USS Annapolis (AMGR 1) in South China Sea to Pacific Fleet Headquarters at Pearl Harbor. With the exception of periodic visits to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Philippines for upkeep and training, she continued this important service into 1967, assuring a smooth and steady flow of information and orders. Annapolis decommissioned 20 December 1969 at Long Beach, CA and was placed in the Pacific Reserve Fleet.”
Luke: “Did you try drugs?”
Dennis: “I tried anything I could get my hands on. A good third of the crew of my ship, at least when we weren’t out to sea, when we were in port, was drunk or stoned at least half the time.”
Luke: “Did the Navy experiment on you pharmacologically?”
Dennis: “I don’t think so.”
Luke: “On what basis did you conclude that America should not have fought the Vietnam war?”
Dennis: “Vietnam marked a clear beginning to the role that the United States has adopted of being policeman to the world, which is another way of proclaiming American imperialism, supplanting the British imperialism of the 19th Century. Vietnam demonstrated how wrongheaded that idea is. Fifty five thousand American kids died needlessly for nothing for no good reason at all except to satisfy Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and their political ends. Who knows how many Vietnamese died? A million and a half? And for what reason? What good came of that war? Nothing. All it did was make the South China Sea safe for deep sea oil exploration and the exploitation of rubber plantations. Is that why some of my friends I went to high school with gave up their lives? To make Standard Oil and British Petroleum stronger and more profitable? I think that is pretty horrific, don’t you?”
Luke: “I’m going to be neutral.”
Dennis: “That’s quite journalistic of you, Luke. I’m so proud of you.”
Luke: “Does the world need a policeman?”
Dennis: “No. I don’t think so, not in terms of one nation under God wielding its morality on others. There is an incredible nationalistic arrogance to that. I think the United States made a grievous error in assuming that role.”
Luke: “Does Memphis need policemen?”
Dennis breathes out. “Probably. I suspect every community, every political entity needs a police force to keep order and stability.”
Luke: “But the world doesn’t?”
Dennis: “When you’re talking about Memphis, you’re talking about individuals. When you’re talking about the world, you’re talking about nations. There’s a considerable difference between an individual and a nation. Who am I to go into Peru or Afghanistan or Nepal and say, ‘You’ll do it this way or we’ll put you on your trial or we’ll execute you.’ We’re talking about apples and oranges here.”
Luke: “Would you say that overall the United States has been a great source of freedom and goodness in the world over the past hundred years?”
Dennis: “Compared to what?”
Luke: “Compared to every other nation.”
Dennis: “No. I can dredge up a half dozen other nations off the top of my head who’ve done a far better job of being civil and contributory members of the global community than the United States overall. There’s Canada, Denmark, most of the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway and perhaps Finland), New Zealand. There are any number of countries who’ve shown themselves to be far more enlightened in how they treat their own citizenry as well as outsiders than the United States.”
Luke: “America’s primary reason for fighting in Vietnam was to promote the interests of various big businesses?”
Dennis: “That is my belief. Why do you think we were in Vietnam?”
Luke: “To fight communism.”
Dennis cracks up laughing. With dripping sarcasm, he says, “Right! We did a good job of that, didn’t we?”
Luke: “It could be argued we stopped its advance.”
Dennis: “Really? From where to where?”
Luke: “It didn’t spread beyond Vietnam and Cambodia. It didn’t progress to Thailand. It was stopped. That was the high water mark. And it was rolled back.”
Dennis: “You think that because the United States fought its longest war until Afghanistan that we stopped the domino effect that has long ago been discredited and put forth by the war criminal Henry Kissinger as the excuse for prosecuting that wholly unjust and bloody war, you believe that Vietnam stopped the march of communism?”
Luke: “It’s an argument.”
Dennis: “I think it’s a specious argument because we didn’t stop the march of communism. We lost that war and Vietnam became a communist nation and arguably it still is although I’m not so certain what communism is any more. I don’t think our presence there had much effect on the continued growth of communism. Communism was already a doomed economic system as early as 1960. Communism was a convenient bogeyman for the Cold War and for what all wars are about in the end — dollars and cents.”
Luke: “Would you say that communism as practiced in the world over the past 100 years is evil?”
Dennis breathes out. “Oh. You know I don’t know. I don’t paint things with a broad brush anymore. Evil? The oligarchies who came to control the party apparatus at the top by and large were evil. The economic system was proven to be ridiculous, but I just don’t buy the notion that communism in and of itself was evil per se. I just don’t think communism ever works on a large scale.”
Luke: “Would you say that Nazism was evil?”
Luke: “Far more people were murdered by communism in, for instance, Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China, yet you would quickly say that Nazism was evil but you wouldn’t say that about communism. Interesting.”
Dennis: “Let’s go back to what I said about the controlling oligarchy. The same thing was true of Nazi Germany. The oligarchy came to a fore and operated Nazi Germany and brought about the Holocaust just as Stalin brought about his own holocaust in the Soviet Union and Mao and Chang Kaishek did the same in China. Anybody who kills another human being whether it is an individual or a million is by my definition fundamentally evil.”
Luke: “So was the United States fundamentally evil for killing Nazis?”
Dennis: “Remember I said individual. Look, I’m against the death penalty. And yet every year the country of which I am a citizen executes people in my name. Does that make me evil?”
Luke: “Would you say the United States was evil for killing Nazis?”
Dennis, after a ten second pause: “Oh, I don’t know. You got me there. But we’re playing the absolutist game here. If you get sucked into it the way you sucked me into it, I have to at some point say no, of course, but I don’t believe in absolutism and I don’t believe in utilitarianism either. We each have to make our own individual call.”
Luke: “Do you believe in objective good and evil?”
Dennis: “I don’t know. What do you believe?”
Luke: “I won’t be neutral here. I do believe in objective good and evil. I believe there is a transcendent moral code that runs the universe.”
Dennis: “You believe that there is a satan and a Jesus or something equivalent to that.”
Luke: “I don’t believe in a satan and I definitely don’t believe in Jesus, but I do believe in a transcendent source of morality called God. Do you believe in a transcendent source of morality called God?”
Dennis: “A higher power? A transcendent source of morality? I think I do.”
Luke: “If you do believe in a transcendent source of morality, then you do believe in objective good and evil.”
Dennis: “What if I told you I didn’t?”
Luke: “Then I’d ask you how?”
Dennis: “I don’t know. I guess I’d have to refer you to quantum physics and say I believe in quantum physics but I also believe in ah, we’re getting way off base here. I don’t know. I’ll just let it go and move on.”
Luke: “Is this your first novel?”
Luke: “How was the process of writing this book different from writing your other books?”
Dennis: “It took longer. I did a lot in the course of writing the novel that you and I have been doing here over the last ten or fifteen minutes in terms of arguing the big questions in the course of writing my narrative. I have an ongoing conversation with myself about who I am and how I fit in to the universe.”
Luke: “Did your agent and publisher say anything interesting to you about your new book?”
Dennis: “They brought up many of the same questions you brought up.”
Luke: “About God and objective good and evil?”
Dennis: “I am afraid that is left to people like you and me to toss around. Out there in the marketplace, quite frankly, they don’t give a damn.”
“Fiction is always harder to publish than non-fiction.”
Luke: “I had a great question but it is gone because I was listening to what you were saying.”
Dennis: “You’ll never make it on TV as an interviewer because you listen to what people say.”
Luke: “Did you consider writing this book as a memoir?”
“Memoirs are like autobiographies. I don’t trust them. When people write their own biography, they’re writing hagiography. They’re doing their own sifting job on their lives. Oft times, memoirists leave out the best part because it is too embarrassing, too grating. Time and memory have colored their thinking and what comes out is a revisionist look at the past, which is not necessarily true.”
Luke: “How did you come to write a book on Bob Dylan (due out later this year)?”
Dennis: “My publisher wanted me to. I’ve always had an interest in Bob Dylan. I admire his work. I dodged it at first, but the more I looked into Dylan and the huge interest in him. There’s been hundreds of books written about Dylan. It began to dawn on me that what I said to you about memoirs might be true about him. Despite all the books written about him, few of us know who he really is. That was a challenge.”
Bob Dylan is not cooperating with McDougal’s biography, which is a third of the way along.
Luke: “What do you admire about Bob Dylan’s work?”
Dennis: “That he began grappling with the unenviable and impossibly painful question of objective good and evil when he was barely out of high school. How’s that?”
Luke: “How would you rank his voice?”
Dennis: “Awful. I can probably count on one hand the songs he performed during his entire career that were pleasant to listen to.”
“The songs for which he is best known were made popular by people who can sing like Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez.”
Dennis calls Dylan “the most significant poet of the 20th Century.”
The working title of the book is “Things Have Changed.”